Trenton Arts at Princeton Celebrates Five Years

Written by
Rebekah Schroeder, U.S. 1 Newspaper
Feb. 7, 2024

Originally published by U.S. 1 Newspaper.

With Trenton Arts at Princeton, founder Lou Chen has tapped into a rhythm that unites Trenton and Princeton in harmony.

When he launched the Trenton Youth Orchestra in partnership with Trenton Central High School while still a student at Princeton University in spring 2017, cultivating a small group of Trenton violinists and Princeton volunteers who would set the stage for a new alliance, Chen sounded the first beat in a now-five-year symphony of artistic synergy.

Lou Chen is the founder of Trenton Arts at Princeton, which celebrates its fifth anniversary with a February arts education panel and an April performance, both on the Princeton campus. (Photo by Kevin Birch)

Chen is the program manager of Trenton Arts at Princeton, or TAP, a collaboration between Princeton University’s Department of Music, Lewis Center for the Arts, and Pace Center for Civic Engagement that brings Trenton and Princeton University students together for arts-based programming and performances.

After Chen graduated in 2019 with his bachelor’s degree in music, former University Provost Deborah Prentice hired him to officially continue the program he had begun as a sophomore into what became known as TAP — making the Trenton Youth Orchestra, or TYO, the overture to TAP’s now-expansive artistic initiative.

Now, as the organization’s fifth anniversary approaches, TAP will celebrate with an arts education panel this month and a showcase in April honoring the relationship between the two Mercer County creative communities.

The TYO, which Chen still directs, is one of four groups included in TAP’s Saturday Morning Arts program, or SMArts, which rehearses each week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Lewis Arts Complex: the Trenton Youth Orchestra, Singers, Dancers, and Theater.

In addition to being able to devote these three-hour sessions to the discipline of their choice, Trenton students are guaranteed free transportation to and from rehearsals, as well as breakfast and lunch. Each Saturday session opens with a performance by a Princeton student group and a Q&A session before SMArts participants break into their respective groups.

“Every Saturday, we bus 70 Trenton Public School students to the Lewis Arts Complex to engage in theater, dance, orchestra, or choral programming, supported by a team of about 60 Princeton student volunteers,” as well as staff and faculty members, Chen explained.

TAP's Trenton Youth Orchestra, directed by Chen, takes the stage at the Saturday Morning Arts winter 2023 showcase. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

The active collaboration between the two locales has been “gratifying,” Chen, who was awarded the 2023 Tiger Entrepreneur Award for his efforts, shared in an interview.

TYO is open to students at both Trenton Central High School, or TCHS, and Trenton Ninth Grade Academy, or TNGA. Trenton musicians can practice and even work one-on-one with their Princeton student coaches to rehearse pieces in a myriad of genres and compositional styles in the Lee Rehearsal Room.

TYO previously performed for Venezuelan conductor and violinist Gustavo Dudamel as part of his welcome to campus in December 2019, when he arrived as Princeton University Concerts' inaugural Artist-in-Residence in recognition of its 125th anniversary.

Dudamel is co-chair of the Dudamel Foundation, which “expands access to music and the arts for young people by providing opportunities and resources to shape their creative futures,” an idea influenced in part by his personal experience with Venezuela's famous "El Sistema" program, known for "promoting social development through music education."

TYO then worked with PUC on a new outreach program, the “Neighborhood Music Project,” which was “conceived to reinforce Maestro Dudamel’s commitment to music as a force for uniting communities, empowering young people, and promoting positive social change” by supporting six different initiatives to expand access to the arts and music in Trenton.

Trenton Youth Singers, or TYS, came next, serving TCHS and TNGA, as well as Trenton middle schools such as Hedgepeth-Williams Intermediate School and Arthur J. Holland Middle School.

According to the TAP website,, “TYS members engage in a mixture of full choir and small group singing with their Princeton student coaches, learning an eclectic mix of repertoire while building their musicianship skills, vocal strength, and confidence,” with free private lessons available and SMArts rehearsals held in the Lewis Arts Complex Forum. Both TYO and TYS hold annual recitals and showcases.

Trenton Youth Dancers perform at the SMArts winter 2023 showcase. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Trenton Youth Dancers, or TYD, is a dance program for TCHS and TNGA that aims “to educate Trenton students in a wide variety of dance styles so that they are equipped to develop their own choreography” through workshops and rehearsals at the Roberts Dance Studio.

Trenton Youth Theater, or TYT, is the final SMArts group, providing students from TCHS and TNGA with an educational experience that encompasses theater arts skills such as directing, acting, lighting design, and more, “inspired by Princeton’s holistic approach to theater.”

The Trenton Youth Theater program supports participants in producing original theatrical works. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Over the course of the program, members will eventually produce their own original theater works with support from their Princeton student coaches. Weekly rehearsals are held at the Godfrey-Kerr Theater Studio and Light Lab.

Another facet of TAP is the Trenton Arts Fellowship, which allows five Princeton students interested in arts education to participate in paid leadership roles, at least one for each SMArts group, for Saturday rehearsals. They also meet throughout the week to coordinate and invite guest speakers. Applications for the 2024–’25 Trenton Arts Fellowship will open in the summer of 2024.

But in a two-pronged approach to the anniversary, Chen has designated equal opportunities for both the community-centered dialogue and performance that make TAP unique.

He will moderate TAP’s upcoming "Performance, Policy, and Pedagogy: A Conversation About Arts Education" event, which invites four “thought leaders” to discuss the state of arts education on Tuesday, February 13, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in Fine Hall's Taplin Auditorium.

Anna Yu Wang brings her perspective in music theory and ethnography as an assistant professor of music at Princeton University to TAP's panel.

These speakers include Anne Fitzgibbon, the founder and executive director of the Harmony Program nonprofit organization; Baffour Osei, the manager of Princeton University’s new robotics lab in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Engineering Quadrangle; Anna Yu Wang, a music theorist, ethnographer, and assistant professor of music who joined the Princeton faculty in November of last year; and Elizabeth Zwierzynski, the acting supervisor of visual and performing arts and partnerships for Trenton Public Schools.

True to the collaborative spirit of arts education, 18 campus partners came together to sponsor the event, including the Keller Center, McCarter Theatre, Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton Innovation, Princeton University Concerts, the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and more.

Baffour Osei is the manager of the Princeton University robotics lab. (Photo by David Kelly Crow)

The event is free to attend, with no ticket or prior registration required for entry. For more information, see the events page on the TAP website,

“I think it does feel like a very appropriate way to celebrate our fifth anniversary. One, because TAP has always embraced a very interdisciplinary approach to the arts. Every year, we host an Arts Switcheroo Day for our students, where the theater students try out dance, the dance students try out singing,” and so on, Chen explained. “Oftentimes, conversations about the arts are siloed into ‘we’re going to do a conversation with dancers,’ and then ‘a conversation with musicians,’ but [we thought] to bring them together, inspired by Princeton’s very uniquely interdisciplinary approach to the arts.”

Anne Fitzgibbon is the founder of the Harmony Program, a nonprofit music education organization.

Fitzgibbon, the self-described “social entrepreneur” behind the Harmony Program, is a Princeton graduate and experienced nonprofit leader who first met Chen about five years ago on a music education panel with Dudamel.

Fitzgibbon started the Harmony Program in 2003 as a policy administrator for the New York City Mayor's Office and incorporated the nonprofit the following year. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 2007 to study the same “El Sistema” youth orchestra system that Dudamel did, and Fitzgibbon brought those principles back to New York City.

According to its website, the Harmony Program provides young people in underserved communities “with free, intensive musical training with the goal of supporting their healthy social development and academic achievement” that prioritizes both “community-based instruction and the social value of ensemble learning.”

Zwierzynski was the founding dance educator at the TCHS Visual and Performing Arts Academy, or TCHS-VPA, one of five small learning communities that make up the TCHS campus. She laid the foundation for the school’s dance curriculum before taking on a new role overseeing the visual and performing arts programming of the entire school district.

Elizabeth Zwierzynski, the dance educator who helped found TYD, is the acting supervisor of visual, performing arts, and partnerships for the Trenton Public School district.

Trenton teacher partners like Zwierzynski, who was also instrumental in helping Chen start TYD, work together with TAP on programming and engaging students.

“She’s a brilliant, brilliant thinker and a dear friend, so I thought [about] bringing someone from Trenton into the fold alongside Anna Yu Wang, who’s a scholar of music who just joined the faculty [and] specializes in making music pedagogy more accessible, or Baffour Osei, who brings the STEAM perspective of someone who develops makerspaces around the world that encourage students to create visual art out of 3D printers. It’s a very diverse group of people that I think will have a really interesting conversation,” Chen said. “Each of them brings such a unique perspective.”

He noted that this lineup of speakers consciously embraces the diverse disciplinary strengths of its speakers from across the realm of arts education: incorporating public schooling and dance from Zwierzynski; music, public policy, and the nonprofit sector from Fitzgibbon; scholarly music analysis and pedagogy from Wang; and science and engineering from Osei.

“I have a couple of hopes for the audience. The first is to realize how general principles of pedagogy transfer to everything. The way you teach visual arts is also the way you would teach dance and music, but also the way you would teach science,” Chen explained.

“We’re going to be speaking about general themes about how to create a culture or an environment of creative vulnerability. I think that has a lot of relevance to any discipline, especially when engaging a lot of first-generation low-income students,” he continued. “When you want to create an environment that is tailor-made to their needs and wants, it requires a lot of intentionality, and those are questions that I think all four of the panelists have been thinking a lot about.”

He is also looking forward to hearing how Zwierzynski and Fitzgibbon acknowledge the significance of policy in the conversation, adding that many Princeton students may not quite realize or “understand how nitty-gritty arts education policy can get at the district level.”

Chen emphasized the importance of knowing that major decisions are regularly made in school board meetings and by people elected to positions of power, reinforcing the value of both attention and attendance as a way to advocate for funding the arts.

“I think politics becomes so nationalized in general that we don’t realize how essential local government is,” he said. “Who you vote for school board will dictate how good your child’s orchestra program is going to be, so having an understanding about localized centers of power and what it actually takes to get a program off the ground within a public school system — or in [Fitzgibbon’s] case, outside of it, but directly in collaboration with it — I think will be a useful lesson for Princeton students who often maybe don’t understand what it takes to get an idea off the ground.”

In a transition from pedagogy to performance, TAP's "Saturday Morning Arts Fifth Anniversary Showcase" takes the program to its largest venue yet with a concert in Richardson Auditorium's Alexander Hall on Saturday, April 6, from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

“To be in Richardson Auditorium is an incredible honor. That’s an auditorium that houses professional orchestras and concert series, so to be able to use it is, I think, going to be a real culmination of effort for our students,” Chen said. “The showcase is going to be special in the abstract because it really is a beautiful culmination of the program, which has grown very quickly in a very short amount of time.”

Participants in the Trenton Youth Theater program pictured again at the SMArts spring 2023 showcase. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

The event consists of two premieres, the first being a TAP-produced documentary film about SMArts with perspectives from the people who made it happen, including Zwierzynski, while the second is a collaborative performance involving — for the first time — all four SMArts groups.

Over an exclusively arranged medley of songs by artists like Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, the orchestra will make history as they play their instruments, the choir sings, the dancers execute choreography, and the theater group delivers monologues over music.

Chen said that the SMArts groups are eager to show the public what the program has been working on so they can encourage people to “be invested in the next five years.”

“It’s a very ambitious collaboration. I don’t think Richardson has ever had anything quite like it — a showcase featuring four distinct art forms and then coming together at the end — so logistically, it’s going to be interesting, but I think we keep talking about interdisciplinary connection, unlikely connection. I think having that collaboration at the end of the showcase brings that all together.”

The event is free, but tickets are required. For reservations or more information, see the TAP website page for the event at

Chen said a common misconception about TAP is that Trenton students come to Princeton because they lack opportunities for creative expression in their own city. But that assumption alienates a wealth of local facilitators and advocates, from those in the public school system to creative collectives like Artworks Trenton and institutions like the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, who have supported and grown Trenton’s arts scene.

“My pet peeve is when I present about TAP to some audience, and afterward, they come up to me, and they go, ‘What you’re doing is so important, because there [is] no arts programming in Trenton,’ and my response to that is always, ‘What are you talking about?’” Chen said, describing the public schools’ offerings as both “incredibly vibrant” and “robust.”

Last June, as Chen explained in a follow-up correspondence, “the TCHS Orchestra received Distinguished/Advanced ratings across the board at the New Jersey State Teen Arts Festival.”

According to Chen, various TCHS performing arts alums are working in the industry as professional dancers and producers, while others are on his staff at Princeton University. The TCHS theater program will present another musical, "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical,” based on the best-selling fantasy book series by Rick Riordan, this spring.

Other initiatives made possible through direct coordination with TCHS include the “Side-by-Side Concerts,” a joint effort between TAP, Princeton’s Department of Music, and Rockefeller College. Every year, Princeton students, staff, and faculty are invited to perform together with the TCHS Orchestra in the Rockefeller College Common Room.

Tigers in Trenton!” is a collaboration with the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students where Princeton student groups perform for about 300 students from the TCHS-VPA, host a dance competition, and end with “an informal talkback.”

There is also the “Express the Music” contest, which takes its inspiration from the PUC’s “Creative Reactions” competition and asks Trenton students to reflect on a PUC concert experience through writings and illustrations.

“We’re supporting the programming, but we’re not filling this massive gap in the system,” Chen remarked.

By offering her views as a representative of the public schools and “the highest-level person responsible for the arts,” Chen said Zwierzynski will be able to “talk about what’s already happening in Trenton, outside of Princeton,” to provide more context during the panel.

“I don’t want TAP to be people’s only entry point into Trenton; I want them to understand Trenton as its own thriving cultural hub, and I think her voice is going to help with that,” he said. “I often think about, in my work, how Princeton doesn’t understand Trenton, or at least when they do try to understand Trenton, it’s [from] a very theoretical perspective. It’s not like, ‘I know people who live there; I’m embedded.’ The ‘embeddedness’ is so crucial to our work.”

Chen established his own relationships in Trenton by attending local rehearsals, performances, and other events, stating that this immersive experience connected him with others who shared his passion for arts education.

“I think changing how Princeton perceives Trenton is about taking that sense of ‘embeddedness’ I developed and trying to give Princeton students an entry point into that. I know most of them will never become as embedded as I’ve become, but there are ways to ladder that learning for people, depending on their level of commitment,” he explained.

However, Chen mentioned that a friend recently reminded him that TAP’s work has begun to affect how Trenton residents perceive Princeton, too.

“Because I think people in Trenton see Princeton as, understandably, a bit of a behemoth that tramples around and doesn’t really care about what’s happening in the community,” he explained, the prestigious college town has gained a reputation as “exclusive” or “remote.”

But when the Trenton students are essentially given free rein of the Lewis Arts Complex to work for three hours alongside Princeton student volunteers not much older than themselves, “that’s really helped them reconceptualize Princeton as a welcoming space that is meant for them.”

“I have Trenton students who’ve been working with their Princeton private teacher for more than four years. That’s a really special relationship, so I think having the Princeton students be the face of this collaboration is crucial to breaking down those perceptions of Princeton as this elite, cold place,” Chen added.

Chen sees TAP’s future as one of strengthening the program’s presence in public schools, “nurturing” and “building” those foundational relationships along the way.

“I’ve been telling my staff that the word for the next five years is going to be stabilization, not growth. I think we have grown so much, and it was so much faster than any of us anticipated, and I think we’re starting to reach a point where now it’s time to plant roots,” even if the “work of writing policy and setting precedent” might not be the most glamorous aspect, he said.

A constant theme throughout the planning process, though, is determining the best ways to reaffirm TAP’s organizational commitment to each of its students and to help them achieve their specific goals or expectations.

“I think a big word for us in TAP is individualization. How do we individualize every opportunity, whether it’s for a Princeton student who only has an hour to give per week versus a student who wants to give 10 hours?” he said, noting the same range in Trenton.

Violinist Ashanti Ross performing in Princeton University's Richardson Auditorium with the Trenton Youth Orchestra.

Chen observed that while this is just a hobby for some of the Trenton students, there are others who want to become professionals, highlighting that one of their participants, TYO violinist Ashanti Ross, was accepted to the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship in 2021. (For more on Ross, see "Finding a Musical Voice with Trenton Youth Orchestra" by Cammie Lee from the October 12, 2022, edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.)

The most challenging aspect of developing programming, according to Chen, is creating a system that is not only accessible, but also allows for this personalization.

“There’s a tension there. The more accessible you make it, the more people come in. But the more people who come in, there’s more paths that you have to support, so figuring out how to do that requires a lot of intentionality and a lot of strategic pedagogy, which is, again, why I brought the idea of this arts education panel in some ways for me, personally, to pick their brain about this challenge,” he added.

Chen hopes that, moving forward, whether via direct collaboration or support, the city-township bond at the heart of TAP will only grow stronger.

“Something that I’ve been really grateful for is how TAP has, I think, done its own small part to change the nature of the relationship between Trenton and Princeton more generally,” he explained, as the program has “facilitated connections” that have since evolved on their own.

As an example, he explained that when TCHS put on their musical theater production of “The Wiz” last year, a Broadway retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" featuring choreography by Zwierzynski, the show — which had been canceled before its March 2020 premiere due to the pandemic — was their first in almost two decades.

Ahead of its historic debut, TCHS theater teacher Felicia Brown needed to raise money to help support the show, with all donors to be listed as sponsors of the production.

“I went to the show opening night, and they had a list of the names of people who donated. There were a bunch of Lewis Center for the Arts theater faculty who weren’t otherwise really engaged in TAP but knew about ‘The Wiz’ and about Felicia because of TAP,” he explained.

This was a pivotal moment for Chen, who realized that even when TCHS was hosting artistic endeavors “separate from Princeton,” those from Princeton still actively contributed.

“I think that’s a really beautiful example of how, at the end of the day, TAP is a facilitator of connection,” he added. “We bring people together, and we know that when we put people in a room together or we post something on social media about Trenton, that that’s something that people will remember, and then will want to develop their own connections themselves. Ultimately, we build relationships, and then we let them flourish on their own.”